Every TV set in America is tuned to Chile's Atacama Desert to watch the trapped miners be lifted to safety. The area in the background might not look that inviting, but I can personally attest that the Atacama Desert is one of the most stunning, interesting landscapes I've ever seen.
I stayed there a couple of years ago to do a story on an Explora resort in the Atacama Desert. While there, I got the chance to stand on top of an 18,000-foot volcano, ride horses, float in the saltiest water I've ever been in and go mountain biking through the sand.
Explora trips aren't cheap: this one costs around $1,900 a person (double occupancy) for three nights. But that includes your meals, alcohol, hotel and guided excursions like the ones mentioned above.
Here's the story:
Chile is not only home to one of the most remote places on Earth.
It also boasts the driest desert in the world.
Little more than half an inch of rain a year typically falls on the Atacama Desert, a windswept canvas of sand, salt flats and mountains tucked away in the northernmost part of the country.
Explora set up shop here nearly a decade ago when it built the 50-room Hotel de Larache, a subtly elegant base camp of sorts 8,015 feet above sea level in the adobe-dotted oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, population 2,500.
The drill at Hotel de Larache is similar to Explora's Easter Island program. Before a four-course dinner each night, guests meet with guides to plan the next day's excursions. In Atacama, that could mean anything as laid-back as taking a van ride to see flamingos feeding on algae or as challenging as climbing high-altitude volcanoes jutting into the horizon. And there's always the option of navigating the desert on horseback.
Our first night in Atacama, our Explora guide Alvaro casually mentioned the possibility of summiting one of the volcanoes, a long dormant behemoth named Cerro Toco. Elevation: 18,381 feet.
"It's my favorite excursion," said Alvaro, a muscular former player for the Chilean national volleyball team. "But it's difficult."
Still, my goal-oriented friend and I couldn't resist the allure of at least taking a shot at reaching the top.
So we spent the better part of the next three days trying to get our legs and lungs adjusted to that unholy matrimony of hilly terrain and thin air. We scaled sand dunes. We rode mountain bikes. We hiked. And then we hiked some more.
Every now and then we'd remind ourselves this was vacation, not boot camp. That's when we'd order another pisco sour or lounge a little longer in the bubbling hot springs.
But the thought of Toco always kept our hedonism in check.
On our fourth and final day, Alvaro drove us up thousands of feet to the base of the Toco hike. We'd be climbing the height of the Sears Tower, but we were starting a heck of a lot higher up than Chicago.
With slow, deliberate steps, Alvaro spent the next hour and a half guiding us up the south face of Toco. Alvaro stepped aside when we neared the top and told us to take the lead. He knew how magical it can be to reach a summit like this, and he didn't want to get in the way.
Our reward was a stunning 360-degree view that encompassed snow-capped mountains and expansive plateaus, as well as Chile's neighbor to the north, Bolivia. It was as if Toco were compensating for the lack of oxygen to our lungs by giving us more scenery than our eyes could handle.
My friend and I put down our hiking poles and sat down while Alvaro took a thermos and chocolate out of his backpack.
I never imagined drinking tea on a rock could feel better than sipping a pisco sour in a hot spring.